It’s a common complaint these days that many novels are written like movies, or presuppose the movies they hope to be made into. They tend to employ short chapters, emphasize linear, episodic plot lines, and describe characters and environments in broad brushstrokes. They eschew the kind of (sometimes lengthy) attention to detail that more involved novelists feel is necessary to engage the full empathy of the reader. I suppose the writer most cited for this style is Michael Crichton – while his basic ideas are compelling, and always well-researched, he’s often taken to task for the thinness of his plotting and characterizations, and it’s a given that whatever he publishes will become a movie.
It’s fairly easy to separate the old school novelists from the new ‘cinematic’ writers. No one would accuse John Irving or Philip K. Dick of writing books that ‘lay out’ the movie, even though their books are often adapted and filmed. And John Grisham and Tom Clancy will never be confused for Great Novelists, even though their books are generally compelling, wildly popular, and adapt fairly cleanly to their cinematic successors.
So now let’s think about someone like Elmore Leonard – linear, episodic plotlines, the aforementioned broad brushstrokes, movie adaptations galore. But now we run into an important distinction. Leonard’s particular brand of minimal storytelling reflects a kind of seasoned refinement. He doesn’t need a lot of exposition because he has irreproachable taste in choosing just the right few words to convey an enormous amount of information. In fact, you could make the same argument for any number of ‘genre’ writers – Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Harlan Ellison, Jim Thompson or James M. Cain, for instance.
Submitted for your approval: one Duane Swierczynski. His ripping book, The Wheelman, feels like a movie as you read it. The whole story feels very fast and very linear – there’s a sense that the events are being presented in real time – but Swierczynski raises the stakes with the undeniably cinematic device of chopping the story up into constantly shuffled bite-size fragments, crisscrossing manically from tiny chapter to tiny chapter. Nonetheless, you never feel rushed along or short-changed – the stylistic details of the environment, the events, and the people within them feel fully self-contained and complete. You never scratch your chin over this-or-that loose thread.
The contemporary master of the long-form of this, in film, is Quentin Tarentino – scenes are presented out of their chronological order to enhance irony, or to throw something you thought you knew into a brand new perspective. The short-form, cinematically, is embodied by guys like Tony Scott, Guy Ritchie, Robert Rodriguez, Joe Carnahan, and whoever is directing Luc Besson’s movies this week.
I’ll rely on my readers to enlighten me as to whether any other writers are successfully pulling the short-form off, but I’m not aware of anyone. (Maybe Nicholson Baker, maybe Mark Danielewski, maybe Frank Miller…). Swierczynski has this down to a thrilling science. A bank job goes awry. A retired cop gets wind of it on the wire. The guys who set up the heist are pissed. But was it really their idea? Can their rivals capitalize? Some people died – or did they? Will cops solve this, or prevent it from being solved? Will the retired free-lancer muck up the works, or come out on top of the shitstorm? Was the wheelman double-crossed? By his partners? His girlfriend? His employers? Did he double-cross them?
It is, I hope I’m making clear, one hell of a roller coaster. Every cop is out for his own. Every thief would stab his mother. Every bartender, or doctor, or hotel doorman, or parking lot attendant, is a retired cop, or a mobster, or has a relative who’s one or the other – hey, I’ll get him/her on the phone! And, like most great genre fiction, an undeniable moral code pokes out when you least expect it. Which thieves have honor? Which cops are really good cops?
This is vastly enjoyable on a couple of levels. If you just want a knock-down, drag-out, couldn’t-put-it-down thriller, here it is. Go get it. If you’re inclined to a geekier, more anal-retentive league, it’s a textbook of the new wave of genre plotting structure. I’d put Swierczynski in the same league as early Neal Stephenson, Richard K. Morgan or China Mieville – authors who presented some of the Next Big New Ideas in how the printed story can be told.
But God bless the old school. And my most recent foray there involved a few books by one of the old masters – Georges Simenon. For most readers, that’s a familiar name, and they may be familiar with a number of Inspector Maigret adaptations for the BBC starring Michael Chabon. But the availability of Simenon’s published works has been spotty here in the States. Translators will tackle a few of the books (there are 75 novels, 28 short stories), those few will get published, and they’ll go out of print ten years later; various translators and publishers leapfrog each other over time. My source is a series of ten of the books that Penguin put out a year or two ago as paperbacks. The New York Review of Books is also publishing a number of his non-Maigret romans-durs (hard novels); they are also superbly written, but noirer than noir, almost unremittingly bleak.
Simenon shares, with other great genre writers, a keen sense of minimal description to express big ideas. The two I read, The Hotel Majestic and Lock 14, create efficient little worlds that Inspector Maigret must explore to solve the crimes. The first involves the working environment within the Hotel Majestic, and the interactions of its staff, from its well-paid management to its lowest minimum-wage maintenance worker, serving high-income hoi polloi, frazzled traveling salesmen and tourists. The other book concerns lives and livelihoods among the provincial waterways and canal systems within (mostly) rural France – oil tankers, shipping boats, barges (both motorized and horse-drawn) pleasure boats, yachts, and the variety of owners, sportsmen and workers who pilot the boats or run the canal system.
It’s typical in mysteries like these for the characters to have wildly divergent histories; who-they-were-then and what-they-are-now, or who-they’ve-always-been and will-always dependably-be. Maigret, sometimes admirably, sometimes irritatingly, enters the foreign culture (as it were), sorts out and restrings the events and characters, and sees justice done, often in bigger ways than just solving the initial crime. He’s patient but efficient, respectful but cranky; tolerant and open-minded, but brooks no nonsense – a sad-and-wise worldly realist who loves getting home to the missus.
Simenon is a first-among-equals for the detective/police procedural. Duane Swierczynski is the new kid in town. And they are both highly readable and highly recommended.